The crowd occupied themselves with kosher-for-Passover pizza and crepes but got grumpy when the trio delayed for more than a half-hour. Finally, the three "girls" walked onto the stage, two barefoot, one in sandals: Yael Deckelbaum, with her dirty-blonde hair and green eyes; Karolina, (who goes by one name only), with her unmistakable afro; and Dana Adini, with long brown waves that look like dreads-in-formation.
As soon as their angelic harmonies opened the show with the lyrics: "Lovers/ Don't be afraid/ I have come to save you from the pain," the crowd was soothed. The sound matched the surroundings -- natural, organic, earthy, relaxing and glam-free.
On May 10, HaBanot Nechama will perform at their most glamorous venue yet -- the Kodak Theatre -- in the gala finale of the "Let My People Sing" music festival celebrating Israel's 60th anniversary. These Israeli natives are sure to bring raw soulful simplicity and natural girl power to a stage known for hosting Hollywood's most primped affairs. They've been likened to the Indigo Girls, Crosby Stills and Nash, and even the Dixie Chicks.
Embarking on their first North American tour, with stops at Radio City Music Hall and the Highline Ballroom in New York and at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino in Las Vegas, HaBanot Nechama has come a long way from that day in 2004 when, at a Tel Aviv clothing boutique, the then-struggling artists had one of the most important girl-talks of their careers.
"I came to Dana very desperate," related singer-songwriter Yael Deckelbaum during her first interview with a non-Israeli publication. "Karolina came desperate. About our lives, not making it, frustrations at being poor musicians, not being acknowledged, not having money. In that moment was a spark. The first spark."
Curled up in a chair in her bohemian-style apartment in Jaffa, wearing Capri pants and a cotton tank and sans make-up, Deckelbaum spoke about the making-of-the-band on behalf of the trio in her fluent, tad-rusty English. She inherited the language and love for music from her father, a Canadian-Israeli who led a country-folk band, The Taverners, in her hometown of Jerusalem.
It's difficult these days to interview the girls together. In addition to preparing for the tour, they're busy developing their now-successful solo careers. Deckelbaum is finishing her first solo album, Karolina is working on her second and Adini's acting career is soaring, with a starring role as an injured ballet dancer in a new Israeli prime-time television show, "Al Ktzot Ha'etzbaot" (On the Tip of the Fingers).
They owe much of their current success to those inchoate nights in one another's living rooms, when, unbeknownst to them, they were forming a new band by spontaneously, intuitively pitching harmonies for the others' songs.
"We were nourishing each other with each other," Deckelbaum said. "I got a lot of inspiration, so I started writing songs that grew out of this inspiration -- and we started writing some stuff together and jamming a lot. Our meetings didn't feel like work. It felt like a support group."
The name of the band does not necessarily apply to their effect on audiences, but on themselves.
"Karolina brought up the name when we were sitting in the room," Deckelbaum said. "She said, 'I'm feeling such a big comfort. Maybe we should call ourselves Nechama [Comfort].' A bell went off, and that's what it is."
Karolina, born Keren Karolina Avratz in Eilat, contributed her version of the story over the phone from her Tel Aviv apartment.
"The fourth girl is named Nechama," she said. "She's the influence. Sometimes I feel it's another lady -- that there is another woman coming out because our voices come so together, like glue."
The girls debuted on stage as a trio about four and a half years ago with three songs at an acoustic night the Jah-Pan club in the artsy Florentine neighborhood in south Tel Aviv.
"It was very clean, no ego, very special and powerful and full of love," Deckelbaum said. "The crowd went mad. We were each very good on our own -- the crowd enjoyed us very much -- so when the three of us got together, it was three times stronger."
HaBanot Nechama continued to perform regularly, and without formal musical training, the naturally talented singers relied much on intuition, trial and error, and audience call/response to perfect the act. By the time they went into the studio to record an album independently they had already built up a loyal following.
Toward the end of the recording process, they caught the attention of veteran Israeli manager Asher Bitansky, who signed them on his Labeleh record label.
HaBanot Nechama- i Love You
"They are three individual creative talents that managed to collaborate in such a wonderful way and create a tone of music, folk appearance that is rare not only in Israel but around the world," said Bitansky, who is responsible for booking their shows in the United States. "I didn't have to knock on too many doors to make it happen. All I had to do was introduce them, and the rest was done by the music."
The eponymous album went platinum in Israel only weeks after its release in August 2007.
Its third song, "So Far," dominated the Israeli charts, much to Karolina's surprise. "I remember how insecure she was about it," Deckelbaum said, "and how Dana and I thought: 'Wow-this is amazing.' Then we sat there and tried to harmonize it."
In writing the song, Karolina "had a conversation between my heart and God, and I explained the spirit of what I'm feeling. Whatever I did, I didn't feel good. What's going on? Even when life is amazing I feel bad. People smile at me, I don't smile back.... Sometimes you don't know anything about life and yourself, and that's OK." At the time, Karolina had good reason to smile. Her own band, Funset, was taking off with a sound she likes to call "ragga pumpkin" for its groovy eclecticism.
The album "HaBanot Nechama" reflects the ups-and-downs of art-in-process, the tension between mundane struggles and lofty ambition. In "Ever," Karolina sings of waking up in the morning wondering why "the sun is rising and my soul so far behind." In "Lies," Adini prays for "days like this when I'm not scared to be who I am true." The girls elevate each other's lyrics with funky rhythms, acoustic melodies, musical rounds and catchy harmonies.
Today, the girls don't need comfort for lack of success, but for the pressures that accompany success -- managing their schedule and contracts and balancing their separate careers with the needs of the group. They are discussing a second album, and it remains to be heard how the shift in their careers will affect their synergy.
"Success is not what gets you out of desperation," Deckelbaum said. "It's like falling in love, and now we are at the point in which we have to work harder to keep things on the right track."
Deckelbaum and Karolina are in tune about their future as a band.
"I can say, when you have success it can bring shaky moods to the band," Karolina said. "I see it in other bands, too. But I think the girls and I know why we are together, so I'm not worried. I feel like we can do it again and feel the comfort."